How working as a flight attendant made me a better physician

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June 2020 will mark 15 years of my departure from flying the friendly skies. I have had the privilege of working as a flight attendant for JetBlue Airways from 2001 to 2005. Today, I am proudly grounded as a physician specializing in pediatric emergency medicine.

Gratitude is a positive mindset where you see your life and experiences as a gift. Practicing gratitude is a powerful way to reduce stress and build resilience. As we paused in recent weeks, I reflected on the opportunities and connections which have enriched my life.

With JetBlue Airways’ Inflight Buddy Program, I was able to work part-time as a flight attendant while simultaneously attend medical school. My experiences as a flight attendant have helped shape the physician who I am today, a better physician.

“Welcome aboard.”

As a flight attendant, you understand the power a smile can have. Even history’s first flight attendant, Ellen Church, who was trained both as a pilot and nurse is seen captured in a photo 90 years ago smiling as she welcomed her first passengers onboard a 20-hour flight from Oakland, California to Chicago, Illinois.

A smile allows others to feel wanted, welcomed, and accepted. In addition to your smile, your professional appearance, effective communication, and tone of your voice will evoke a level of trust. And this trust may be called upon in the event of an emergency.

Now, as a physician caring for children who present with medical emergencies, I understand the value of developing trust with parents who are meeting me for the first time. With every patient encounter, I introduce myself along with a handshake (pre-pandemic) and with a warm smile. This brief gesture I have been told has made patients, and parents feel welcomed, at ease, and safe.

“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, be sure to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.

The life of a flight attendant includes long days, delayed or canceled flights, jet lag, and irregular schedules. Flight attendants understand healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep allows them to fly with their best attitudes.

During the inflight safety announcement, you are told to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. You are less helpful to those you serve without your own “oxygen mask,” which can represent your physical, emotional, or mental health. If you are running low on oxygen, you will be unable to perform at your peak.

As a physician working busy 12-hour shifts, several in a row with a mix of daytime and nighttime shifts, I am reminded of my days of flying. Being able to work at my ideal best is vital. Now with the added stressors of the current pandemic, I strive to ensure the oxygen tanks of myself and those around me are filled so that we can deliver the best possible care.

“The Captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign as we are passing through an area of turbulence.”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was attending a lecture in medical school when the news broke a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. I was devastated as I started working as a flight attendant a few months before. The following days were filled with uncertainty, fear, and sadness.

From that crisis, I learned about resilience, the ability to overcome stressful situations. For me, this involved remembering “my why”: being focused on the present, and having the nation’s support. I worked one of the first flights after the nation’s airports reopened. My flight, New York to California, was stressful and emotional. Our crew was able to do it and overcome, proudly waving the American flag as we disembarked the plane.

Today as a physician, I am faced with another crisis. During the past few weeks, I have used the same methods to remain resilient as I did in 2001. Remembering “my why” on becoming a physician, focusing on providing the best care I can right now, and having the collective support from so many people have provided the strength and will to continue. No turbulence lasts forever; it always passes.

“We look forward to seeing you on board again soon.”

A special thank you to JetBlue Airways for giving me the wings to achieve my dreams and land me where my heart belongs. On May 31, I will be celebrating not only my birthday but will also join in observing International Flight Attendant Day.

Take flight; you were meant to soar.

Alexie Puran is a pediatric emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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